Contentious judicial race nearing end Primary election for two judgeships is Tuesday

Rumors, name-calling

5 candidates argue over experience and temperament

March 03, 1996

Selecting judges isn't a dignified process in the '90s.

The contest for two 15-year terms on the Howard Circuit Court bench has produced anonymous leaks, spurious rumors, name-calling, nasty mailings -- in something of a local version of the vitriol that accompanied Clarence Thomas' appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Within the bitter infighting are five personalities -- two judges appointed after careers in civil litigation, a district judge, a county lawyer and an elder statesman who practices law in Pikesville.

The candidates are engaged in a substantive argument over the most important qualities for voters to consider in this race. Some say experience in criminal law. Others say temperament.

And then there are the issues of diversity and of gubernatorial appointments to the bench.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening sought diversity last fall when he appointed two women -- one of them black -- from the nominees of a state commission to fill two seats on the county's bench.

Never had a woman or an African-American held a seat on the county's circuit bench.

But two rivals said the governor overlooked their qualifications, and they quickly mounted a formidable challenge. A fifth entered the race saying he had more experience than the other contenders combined.

Tuesday's primary election will determine whether two, three or four of the candidates stay in the chase for the two circuit seats, depending on which sets of two candidates lead the separate Democratic and Republican balloting.

If more than two candidates remain, the campaign leading up to November's general election could bring back into focus many of the issues and much of the nastiness.

Reporters James M. Coram, Shanon D. Murray and Norris P. West interviewed the five candidates and wrote the following profiles.

Jay Fred Cohen

Jay Fred Cohen has pursued only a few things longer than his 36-year general law practice: He's been married 38 years, and he has piloted recreational airplanes 42 years.

His longevity at law, Mr. Cohen says, has earned him a Circuit Court judgeship. "Experience is what counts," he says.

This is the second time that Mr. Cohen -- a resident of Columbia's Wilde Lake village for 26 years -- has sought a judgeship.

In 1989, when Lenore R. Gelfman was appointed to the county District Court, the local nominating committee didn't even include him on the list it recommended to the governor.

In a county bar association poll then, Mr. Cohen received three votes as well-qualified, 15 as qualified, nine as not qualified and 41 as unknown.

Not much has changed since then. In a recent bar poll on the five judicial candidates in Tuesday's primary, Mr. Cohen received two votes as qualified and 85 as unqualified. More than 150 bar members said they did not know him.

Mr. Cohen says these bar ratings result from the small amount of time he spends working in Howard. His practice is based in Pikesville and takes him all over the state. "I didn't know I knew enough lawyers in Howard County for 85 of them to say I wasn't qualified," says Mr. Cohen.

And these polls don't matter, he says. "I'm relying strictly on the voters of Howard County," he says. "I think they'll be disgusted by what the other four are doing. I'm not political. The lawyers and the politicians aren't going to vote for me."

To reach Howard voters, Mr. Cohen is running a low-budget campaign in which he intends to spend less than $4,000 -- a campaign short on TV ads and long on hand-shaking. "I'm a worker. I've always been a worker," he says. "I just get out and do the work."

Mr. Cohen, 62, has been a solo practitioner for almost all of his legal career.

He started out as an Internal Revenue Service agent, putting himself through night law school at the University of Maryland, and he still does tax returns for a fee.

Divorces, contract disputes, criminal cases, real estate settlements, workers' compensation suits and bankruptcies -- he's handled them all, he says.

He defended Steven H. Oken, who was sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of a Baltimore County woman.

He's also proud of the time, nearly a decade ago, when a Japanese businessman -- whom he had never met -- wired him $5 million to supervise several real estate transactions solely on the advice of two other lawyers.

"I get referrals from all over, and the reason is because of my experience," Mr. Cohen says.

As a judge, Mr. Cohen says, he would outdo any other judge on the bench with his tenacity aimed at lessening the Circuit Court.

"Being a judge is like being a servant," he says. "It's not a job."

Lenore R. Gelfman

The law is in District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman's blood.

Her parents are lawyers, as are her brother and her husband, TV consumer reporter Dick Gelfman. She can't remember a time when she didn't want to be a lawyer -- or more specifically, a judge, she says.

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